MET:Cognitive Approaches to Learning

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This page originally authored by Gillian Gunderson (2009).

Cognitive approaches to learning are concerned with how information is processed by learners.

Cognitive theories view students as active in “an internal learning process that involves memory, thinking, reflection, abstraction, motivation, and meta-cognition” (Ally, 2008). Students organize old knowledge, scripts, and schema, find relationships, and link new information to old (Cognitive Theories of Learning, n.d.). Ertmer and Newby (1993) note that “learning is a change in the state of knowledge, and is a mental activity where an active learner internally codes and structures knowledge” (p. 58). They believe that “the real focus of the cognitive approach is on changing the learner by encouraging him/her to use appropriate learning strategies” (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 59).

Learn more about the definition of cognitivism in this video.

History of Cognitivism

Cognitivist theories emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a reaction against the previously dominant paradigm; whereas behaviourism focused on observable behaviour and the response of humans to environmental stimuli, cognitivism took into account the human mind and complex processes of the mind such as thinking, problem solving, and memory ( Schunk 2004/2007b).

Noam Chomsky challenged behavioral approaches in the 1950’s through his critique of B.F. Skinner’s book, Verbal Behavior (Chomsky, 1967). Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory (later known as Social Cognitive Theory), stressed observational learning and was seen as a bridge between behaviorist and cognitive learning theories. Currently, cognitivism underlies the major theoretical perspectives of learning (Schunk, 2004/2007b).

Classifying Cognitivist Theories

Behaviorist, cognitivist, and constructivist ideas and principles overlap in many areas (Ally, 2008). Therefore, classifying theories is challenging; some theories fit in more than one classification and different sources classify the theories in different ways. For example, in some sources Jerome Bruner‘s Discovery Learning Theory is classified as cognitive (Using the Web for Learning: Background, n.d.) and not developmental (Cognitive Theories of Learning, n.d.). In other sources, Bruner is deemed developmental (Driscoll, 2005/2007). In still other sources, Bruner is considered constructivist (Learning Theories Knowledgebase, 2009). In addition, Albert Bandura is often classified as a behaviorist; however, Bandura, himself, claimed that he was never a behaviorist (From Behaviorism to Social Cognition??, n.d.).

ETEC 512 Classifications

Course materials in ETEC 512 classified theorists as follows:


  • Information Processing Theories by various theorists
    • The computer was seen as a metaphor for the mind (Schunk 2004/2007a).
    • Information was input and the mind processed the information, creating output (Information Processing, n.d.).
  • Assimilation Theory (Meaningful Learning) by Ausubel
    • Ausubel focused on reception learning; he noted that the learner was active and thus he differentiated between rote and meaningful learning (Novak, 1998/2007).
    • Ausubel stressed the importance of the advance organizer.


Concept Map of Cognitive and Developmental Theories

Using the computer metaphor of input and output, this concept map of the theories organizes the main principles. The component referring to an individual is shown on the left hand side of each theory diagram, while the social contribution is shown on the right hand side. 


Other Cognitive Theories

Read more about theories and theorists in Cognitive Sciences.

Key Components of Cognitive Learning Approaches

Ertmer and Newby (1993) describe the commonalities that exist between the many different cognitive theories:

How Learning Occurs

  • mental activity: internal coding and structuring by the learner
  • change occurs in state of knowledge

Factors Influencing Learning

  • environmental conditions
  • practice with corrective feedback
  • processes of mental planning, goal-setting, and organizational strategies
  • way learners attend to, code, transform, rehearse, store and retrieve information
  • learners’ thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and values

Role of Memory

  • information is stored in an organized, meaningful manner; need to relate new information to prior knowledge


  • function of how information is stored in memory
  • occurs when learner understands how to apply knowledge in different contexts

Types of Learning Best Explained

  • complex forms of learning (reasoning, problem-solving, information-processing)
  • communicate/transfer knowledge in an efficient effective manner: simplification, standardization (knowledge analyzed, decomposed, simplified into basic building blocks; irrelevant information eliminated)

Instructional Design

  • feedback to help create accurate mental representations and connections
  • learner and task analysis: determine learner’s predisposition to learning; look at existing mental structures to design instruction so it can be readily assimilated

Major Tasks of Teacher/Designer

  • understand that learners have different backgrounds/experiences which can impact learning outcomes
  • determine the most effective manner in which to organize and structure new information to work with these backgrounds/experiences
  • arrange practice with feedback so that the new information is effectively and efficiently assimilated and /or accommodated with the learner’s cognitive structure

(Ertmer & Newby, 1993, pp. 58-61)

Considerations for Learning

Considerations Theorist/Support
Goals: Dabbah, 2009; Ertmer & Newby, 1993
Learner's Background:
  • be aware of the learner’s prerequisite skills so that knowledge building blocks can be appropriately structured
  • conduct learner analyses
Ally, 2008; Ertmer & Newby, 1993; Gardner; Information Processing; Novak; Piaget; Vygotsky
  • structure, organize, and sequence information for optimal processing
  • capture learner's attention
  • provide opportunities for appropriate feedback
  • use tutorials
Ally, 2008; Anderson; Ertmer & Newby, 1993; Gagne; Information Processing; Merrill; Reigeluth
  • provide for observational/visual learning by using instructional explanations, demonstrations, illustrative examples and matched non-examples
Bandura; Ertmer & Newby, 1993; Paivio
  • plan for cognitive learning strategies such as outlining, summaries, chunking, rehearsal, and imagery
Ally, 2008; Ertmer & Newby, 1993; Hung, 2001; Information Processing
  • help learner link new knowledge to prior knowledge and to see relationships
  • use schema activation
  • help learner store, retain, and retrieve knowledge from memory
  • use concept maps and advance organizers
  • use metaphors and analogies
Ally, 2008; Ausubel; Bartlett; Bruner; Ertmer & Newby, 1993; Information Processing; Mental Models; Novak; Wertheimer
Higher Level Thinking Skills:
  • teach so active, motivated learners have an underlying understanding of performance, metacognition, and self-efficacy
  • provide unfamiliar situations for problem-solving application
Ally, 2008; Bandura; Bloom; Ertmer & Newby, 1993; Gagne; Facione, 1990; Information Processing; Keller; Rumelhart & Norman; Schank; Weiner; Zeldin et al., 2008

Cognitive Tools

Cognitive tools are “generalizable computer tools that are intended to engage and facilitate cognitive processing” (Kommers, Jonassen, & Mayes, 1992, as cited in Jonassen, n.d., Purpose ). In addition, “cognitive tools and environments activate cognitive learning strategies and critical thinking” (Jonassen, n.d., Learners as Thinkers). Although cognitive tools are deemed useful for constructivist approaches, they are also relevant for cognitive approaches; they they go beyond technologies such as Intelligent Tutoring Systems(cognitivist due to their efficient delivery of information and immediate feedback), and further engagement, reflection, and critical thinking skills (Cognitive tools, n.d.; Jonassen, n.d.)

Educational Technologies

Specific technologies can fulfill the roles of cognitive tools in an educational environment:

Roles of Cognitive Tools Examples Specific Technologies
I. Information Seeking:

These tools allow student to retrieve and identify information through learning situations that require the seeking of information.


Search engines


Alta Vista

II. Information Presentation:

These tools enable information to be presented in a meaningful and appropriate representation.

Graphic Organizers PowerPoint


III. Knowledge Organization:

These support students by allowing them to use a tool to establish relationships among information by structuring or restructuring information by manipulating information.


Presentation Tools
Notebook Tools



IV. Knowledge Integration:

Such tools allow students to connect new information to prior knowledge therefore students are building a larger array of information.

Mapping tools


Online discussions

Video streaming
Podcasting (

(Robertson, Elliot, & Robinson, 2007, Cognitive Tools Affordances )

Relevance of Cognitivist Approaches

Cognitivist approaches to learning are relevant to today’s educators. Pratt (n.d.) cautions “while I do not argue with the basic tenets of constructivism, I do resist the rush to adopt any single, dominant view of learning or teaching” (p. 1). Hung (2001) advises that “instead of regarding the different learning theories as discordant, we rather adopt the instructional approaches derived from each of the learning theories and situate them in the appropriate instructional context based on the learning objectives” (Conclusion). Ertmer and Newby (1993) suggest that the best theoretical approach depends on the learner’s experience with the knowledge, and the level of cognitive processing required by the task; behaviourist approaches can allow the learner to master content (know what), cognitivist approaches are better for problem-solving with facts and rules applied in unfamiliar situations (know how), and constructivist approaches are better for ill-defined problems (reflection-in-action).

Distributed Learning

In a Distributed Learning (DL) program, parents are very involved in helping their children learn. The parents are not trained teachers, and have difficulty with using pedagogy to inform their practices at home. The parents find value in the efficient delivery method inherent in cognitivist approaches. DL students in programs that have social/interactive components ( face-to-face classes or online discussions) can use the knowledge and skills learned from a cognitivist approach, from content to critical thinking and problem-solving strategies, to engage in knowledge construction. Pratt (n.d.) states “that teachers are ‘pedagogical engineers’ with the responsibility to plan a lesson(s) with the most relevant instructional approaches and technologies at his or her disposal” (Conclusion). In a DL program, it is the teacher’s responsibility to understand the needs of parents and learners; this makes it even more important that teachers understand and choose the most relevant approach.



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